Friday, July 16, 2010

REJECTIONS


REJECTION

Thought I’d post some thoughts on the subject of rejection from agents and publishers. Lately, I’ve been corresponding with several writers about this subject and it seems as if many of today’s writers don’t really know how to deal with their work being turned down. Not that it’s ever been easy, but it seems as if more people give up on their work earlier than in years past. I thought perhaps it might be helpful to give my own experience with rejection, which is similar to what many other writers in the past have gone through.

Actually, this post was triggered by a client of mine, whom I won’t name, but I don’t think she’d mind my using her as an example. I’ll call her “Ruth.”

A bit of background. I was hired by Ruth to coach her in the final rewrite of her novel—an amazing book, by the way. After she wrote “The End” I recommended her and her novel to five leading literary agencies. From four of them, she received invitations to submit her entire novel and the fifth requested the first fifty pages. This, in itself, is fairly remarkable. Not a single pass among the bunch! As this was Ruth’s first experience in submitting to professionals, she assumed this was the norm.

As it transpired, almost immediately she received an offer of representation from one of the agencies. She emailed me and asked what she should do. I suggested she email the remaining four to let them know she had an offer and would give them a few days to respond before she made a decision. Two of them wrote back with lengthy emails to her telling her how remarkable her novel was (and it is!), but they both passed for legitimate reasons, none of which were because of the quality of the work, but more because of the state of the market. She’s still waiting on the other two who are feverishly reading it before the weekend. She has a scheduled phonecon with the agent who offered representation. We’ll know by Monday probably who she’ll sign with. This is all happening within two weeks of her finishing her novel.

Anyway, what prompted me to consider writing this was a question Ruth posed in an email to me during all of this, when she asked: “Is it common to get two rejections?”

Here was my reply:

Hi Ruth,
I had to laugh at your question, "Is it common to get two rejections?" Why? Because my first novel got 86 rejections... and that's closer to “normal”... And, it was purely an accident it was taken by the 87th. So, two rejections is... not anything at all. What's really abnormal is to get 4-5 top agents to even look at a manuscript, especially today. To even get an agent to look at it--the odds are that if a writer sent out 20 queries, she'd probably get a request for a partial would be one or two at most. Probably none for a full mss. And, chances are slim that the one or two who asked for a partial would ask for more. It's really a jungle out there. It is much easier these days with email from before when we only had snail mail and had to provide postage for a return and wait for the mails both ways, but it's still difficult. Getting four of five agents to look at a full mss and the other to ask for the first fifty pages is really incredible.

Ruth’s question was perfectly legitimate considering this was her first novel and her first foray into obtaining an agent. It also seems to reflect the mindset of many writers these days. It’s just not realistic, as she’ll find out as time goes on and she begins to see the experience of other authors. Although, she’s going to end up with an agent fairly readily and I anticipate publication of her novel and even high sales. It’s that good and it’s a timely novel for a lot of reasons. I think it will be one of those rare first novels that garners awards and enjoys handsome sales.

But, her experience is not the norm. Not even close. I might add that what I worked on with her wasn’t a first draft. She’s taken over twenty classes in writing, written innumerable drafts, and had her work edited by a great number of people. I was just the last. She’d spent three years writing it. It was a polished version that she ended up with. She’d absolutely gone the distance and done everything she should have with her novel. In other words, she was prepared for the opportunity that came along.

But, even so, it was remarkable to get these responses from these agents, all of whom are considered the tops in the business.

Here was my own experience a long time ago. Markedly different as you’ll see.

I sent my first novel, The Death of Tarpons, out 86 times to editors. Eighty-six times! My wife Mary describes me as “bullheaded,” while I prefer the much more accurate, “stubborn.”

Sending out a novel in those days (eighties and nineties) was vastly different than today. For one thing, we didn’t have email. Al Gore was inventing other stuff then, I imagine. How to find the perfect massage, possibly… We did have email, but very few, if any, publishers were accepting submissions or queries via the Internet. Everyone insisted on snail mail. The following was the procedure in those days for you younger writers who’ve only known the Internet.

1. Send via snail mail, a query letter, with SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelop). A one-page letter, created especially for the particular publisher. Took some research to individualize each letter. Pay for stamps and envelops and paper.

2. Wait anywhere from a week to six months for a response from the publisher. An average wait would be six to eight weeks. A yea or nay. Sometimes, the next step would be for the publisher to request a partial. Rare to ask for the full mss. Again, this had to be sent via snail mail and had to include return postage and a mailer to return your work in.

3. Wait anywhere for a week to six months for a response. Most of the time that was a “Not for us.” Occasionally, a request for the full mss. Again, sent with postage both ways and a mailer for them to return your mss in. These were all hard copy requests. You either printed the copies yourself (no dot matrix allowed, even though most of us couldn’t afford anything else) which represented significant printer ink cartridge and paper costs) or you took it to a Kinkos or other copy shop and paid for it. You could usually resend the same returned mss a couple of times at best. After that, if it looked the slightest shopworn you couldn’t send it, but had to print up a new copy. I remember searching for places that had “specials” at ten cents a page, and rarely, even five cents a page. When you’re talking about a 400-page manuscript at say the bargain rate of five cents a page, plus postage both ways, plus the cost of two envelops, and/or stationary boxes to send a complete manuscript in, you’re talking about a significant outlay of money. Not to mention the time and energy required to print off copies yourself if you chose that route, or even to drive to and from Kinkos. To send a mss in those days represented a true commitment to their work on the part of the writer! The same situation existed for any kind of submissions, including poetry, short stories and nonfiction book proposals.

Repeat this 86 times. (Actually, 87, as it was the 87th who finally bought it.) That was my experience. That’s a bit on the high side for most writers who ended up published, but in talking to many of my peers at the time who sold their work, I’d say the average was close to fifty submissions.

This was at a time when we didn’t have much money (kind of the same thing these days, actually…) and my wife, bless her, never begrudged a dime of the literally thousands of dollars I spent in pursuit of publication.

And, the publisher who did end up taking it did so only by accident. If not for her, I might still be sending it out.

What happened was I’d set myself a limit of 100 submissions. Actually, I was almost out of places to send it to.

Let me back up a bit…

On my third submission, a regional publisher in Houston, called me and was really excited about
the book and offered me $10,000 for an advance, a fairly large advance in those days for a first novel. Was I thrilled? You bet. However, I ended up refusing his offer, a decision I second-guess just about every day since then. First, he asked me how autobiographical the book was. About 90-95% I told him. Well, this was the answer he was waiting for, as he got real excited then and said he wanted to bring it out not as a novel, but as an autobiography or memoir. I couldn’t do that, I said, as five to ten percent is fictionalized, and I didn’t think to label it autobiography would be ethical. Okay, he said, visibly disappointed. We still had a deal until he told me the other things he wanted to do with it. One, he said, he wanted to cut certain scenes. A prime example is that in one scene my protagonist’s father whips him with a lived king snake. We’ll have to cut that, he said, so as not to offend the “snake lovers.” That would be what? I asked. Ten-fifteen people? Mostly California residents? I couldn’t do that, I said. For one thing, it was one of the most powerful scenes in the book, and for another, it was one of those “true things” he was gaga about. Our relationship was getting distinctly cool at that point, but we still had a handshake deal until he came out with the thing that broke this camel’s back. I’d named it Spatterdashers and he insisted we rename it, A Boy and His Dog. I distinctly remember beginning to retch when he said that.

And that was the end of that. I thanked him and pulled the book from him. At the time, I remember thinking that only the third publisher I’d sent it to had wanted it and had offered a decent advance—therefore, this was going to be a breeze selling it.

I had no idea it was going to take over eighty submissions later to do that. If I’d known that, I might have taken his offer.

As it happened, the 87th place I sent it to was the University of North Texas Press. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize they had never published any fiction at the time. As the story was told to me later, my opus was sitting on the desk of the publisher, Fran Vick, and she was getting ready to slip a form rejection into it and send it back. Her secretary was a bit late in getting her morning coffee to her, so just to kill a minute or two, she decided to read the first page. A purely by chance moment. In the first page, she happened on the words, “Freeport, Texas.” Which was where the novel was set. The town I grew up in. And… coincidentally, the town Ms Vick was from. Seeing her hometown on the first page, prompted her to keep reading. And, once she started, she said she couldn’t put it down. Result: she loved it and phoned me to see if she could buy it.

When it came out, it was nominated for the Violet Crown Book Award and received a Special Citation from the Violet Crown folks. It completely sold out. And, it was the University of North Texas Press’s first fiction offering. They subsequently published a collection of my stories, another “first” for them.

And now… to back it up even further (ala a Pulp Fiction plot structure)…

A scant two weeks before I sent it to UNT, the same manuscript had been selected for a small workshop led by uber-agent Mary Evans in Indianapolis. During a break in the workshop, Mary asked me to go outside with her and while I was toking on a Camel regular, she said, “This is a truly brilliant novel, but you’re having trouble selling this, aren’t you, Les?” Well, yes I was, kind of… Eighty plus rejections would make it fit that assessment… She said she’d had the same problem with her own client, Michael Chabron, with his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Mary said, that what was happening with my novel was the same thing that had happened with Michael’s. Because my protagonist was a 14-year-old boy, publishers were viewing it as a YA. And, she explained, “teenaged boys are the single-worst demographic in publishing.” As a group, they simply don’t read. I protested that I’d never viewed it as a YA and offered up John Knowles A Separate Peace as an example. “That’s about a teenaged boy and nobody thinks of it as a YA,” I said.

Mary agreed, but said that publishers tend to pigeon-hole books and the simple fact that my book began with him at age 14 was dooming it to be considered as a YA. She suggested I do the same thing she’d had Michael do, and that was to write two additional chapters, and transform it into a frame story. Begin, she said, with Cory as an old man looking back on his childhood and make that the new chapter one, and add a chapter at the end, coming back to him in his old age. She said that’s exactly what she’d had Michael do and once he’d done that, it sold to the very next publisher she’d submitted it to.

Well, I took her advice. Added the two chapters, transformed it into a frame story, and the first house I sent it to was… you guessed it. The University of North Texas Press. Also, in the original version, the words “Freeport, Texas” didn’t appear on the first page and Fran would have undoubtedly not kept on reading when her hometown didn’t appear at that first glance.

This is all to illustrate several things. One, that getting published was a whole lot harder back then, not to mention far more expensive and time-consuming… and also, that like then, luck plays a huge part in getting published. It’s often not enough to just be talented and write even a brilliant book. It’s almost as important sometimes to just be lucky. And, also that listening to people who know what they’re talking about is kind of a good thing to do.

The thing is, things have changed and, believe it or not, for the better! Today, with the Internet and most agents and editors accepting email queries and submissions, it’s a whole new world and much, much easier to submit. Of course, that also leads to more people submitting than ever before. I don’t imagine that nearly as many people would send out submissions if it cost them twenty to thirty bucks per submission these days! (I seem to remember the figure $9.20 being the average postage cost, one-way, for a novel submission.) That means that to submit a complete mss, would require $18.40 for postage, a couple of bucks for the mailers and stationary boxes to send it in, printing costs of $15-$20 at five cents a page.

So, to answer Ruth’s question: Yes, it’s pretty common to get two rejections…

Story about short stories and publishing. Years ago, when I was a student at Vermont College getting my MFA, I was a bit discouraged. I had my novel out before going there and UNT was publishing my collection of short stories, and I was writing a lot of short stories then, but somewhat discouraged at the rate of rejection. I asked my then-advisor, Diane Lefer, what the average ratio of acceptance/rejection was for a “good” writer. Diane said that for an established writer, the ratio was roughly about one acceptance for every thirty submissions. Made me feel lots better as I was averaging an acceptance for every 18 submissions. Again, sometimes it just helps to know other writer’s experiences to gauge where you’re at yourself.

Now, for the good news.

I’ve painted kind of a “gloom and doom” picture of submissions/acceptances, but here’s the good news. Once you get your first novel or nonfiction book published; once you get your first few short stories published… the doors begin to swing wide open. I’ve since published nine books with more to shortly become published. I haven’t written short stories in years—to be honest, there’s no money in short stories, so I don’t spend the time on them, but on nonfiction books and novels instead these days—but now I get requests from magazines for stories. And, contrary to popular wisdom, when you achieve a certain status, they actually pay decent money for them. (Don’t expect much money to be offered unless you’re somewhat of a “name,” however—you have to earn your chops before that happens.) So what I do these days is I usually “cannibalize” unsold novels in my “only available in my room” dead novel trunk and send those to the requesting magazine. The point is, once you’re published, it gets infinitely easier from then on.

Just expect rejection when you first begin. It’s something virtually all of us who are now published went through. It’s not fun at all, but it seems pretty du rigueur for those of us who write. Just part of the deal. If you get published easier and quicker, then my hat’s off to you. If you don’t, then don’t give up. If you believe in your work, chances are that one person you need to say yes, will do so at some point. And it only takes one such yes. If you get a hundred no’s and one yes, you’re a success. And, each no you receive is just one step closer to that yes.

Keep writing and keep sending your work out. You may not end up getting it published, but at least there’s the chance you will. If you don’t send it out, there’s no chance at all.

Plus, it’s downright cheap to send stuff out these days! Unbelievably cheap! Take advantage of that.
One way to handle rejection... Maybe not Politically Correct, but then nothing fun (or honest) is...

19 comments:

Sally Clements said...

Great post, Les. I think it helps everyone to realise that rejections are the norm, its getting the interest of a publisher or an agent thats the unusual part! I had two agents at Curtis Brown read the requested full of my first (still unpublished) crime novel. They told me they loved it, that it was beautifully written, but they couldn't see a market for it. It left me frankly confused and upset. If they'd hated it, I could have changed it. As it is I have no clear idea about what to do with it. I sent it to another agent in NY, who then eagerly requested the full, and has been horribly silent ever since. Despite polite email requests for feedback.
So I worked on something new, and am expecting it to be published on the 28th. Its not as complex as my first novel, and in a totally different genre. (lightbulb moment) Maybe I should get back to that NY agent, and tell them?

Roland D. Yeomans said...

I enjoyed your post, Les.

Yes, rejections certainly sting. I just got a form one today. And despite the fact that I have two agents looking at a full and a partial, I felt dejected at the rejection.

There is no promise for success. There is a sure way to fail -- give up. I wish you nothing but good fortune in your publishing future. Roland

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. Glad you enjoyed it. Were they the only people you sent it to (those two agencies)? Reason I ask, is that I almost always advise a writer to send to 10-20 agents at a time and as soon as they receive a rejection, send it out again, so that it's always out to the 10-20.

One of the problem these days is that publishing is in a state of flux and editors are running scared. Book that would have been taken even a few years ago aren't today as they're afraid guessing wrong will cost them their jobs.

Books also follow Hollywood these days, and a spokesman for Hollywood said a couple of weeks ago that studios these days aren't even looking at bestsellers, but only mega-bestsellers. The mindset permeates the industry. But, as always in the past... this too shall pass. And it will.

Let us know where and we we can get your book!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. Glad you enjoyed it. Were they the only people you sent it to (those two agencies)? Reason I ask, is that I almost always advise a writer to send to 10-20 agents at a time and as soon as they receive a rejection, send it out again, so that it's always out to the 10-20.

One of the problem these days is that publishing is in a state of flux and editors are running scared. Book that would have been taken even a few years ago aren't today as they're afraid guessing wrong will cost them their jobs.

Books also follow Hollywood these days, and a spokesman for Hollywood said a couple of weeks ago that studios these days aren't even looking at bestsellers, but only mega-bestsellers. The mindset permeates the industry. But, as always in the past... this too shall pass. And it will.

Let us know where and we we can get your book!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. Glad you enjoyed it. Were they the only people you sent it to (those two agencies)? Reason I ask, is that I almost always advise a writer to send to 10-20 agents at a time and as soon as they receive a rejection, send it out again, so that it's always out to the 10-20.

One of the problem these days is that publishing is in a state of flux and editors are running scared. Book that would have been taken even a few years ago aren't today as they're afraid guessing wrong will cost them their jobs.

Books also follow Hollywood these days, and a spokesman for Hollywood said a couple of weeks ago that studios these days aren't even looking at bestsellers, but only mega-bestsellers. The mindset permeates the industry. But, as always in the past... this too shall pass. And it will.

Let us know where and we we can get your book!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally. Glad you enjoyed it. Were they the only people you sent it to (those two agencies)? Reason I ask, is that I almost always advise a writer to send to 10-20 agents at a time and as soon as they receive a rejection, send it out again, so that it's always out to the 10-20.

One of the problem these days is that publishing is in a state of flux and editors are running scared. Book that would have been taken even a few years ago aren't today as they're afraid guessing wrong will cost them their jobs.

Books also follow Hollywood these days, and a spokesman for Hollywood said a couple of weeks ago that studios these days aren't even looking at bestsellers, but only mega-bestsellers. The mindset permeates the industry. But, as always in the past... this too shall pass. And it will.

Let us know where and we we can get your book!

Les Edgerton said...

Hey guys, I'm really sorry about these multiple posts from my end. Don't have a clue what's causing this, but I know it's annoying.

Think I'll just go and quietly shoot myself...

...with a shot of Jack...

Tiffany said...

Oh wow. I remember you telling me about your first novel, but there are more details here...either that or I just forgot some of what you said.

Is it normal to have worked on a series/novel for...wow...sixteen years? I wonder how many rejections mine'll get...you know once it's actually finished and I have the balls to send it in. -_-

Les Edgerton said...

Hey Tiffany. That's unusual--to spend 16 years on a novel--and I'd just focus on a single novel and not even think about a series until you complete one. Sometimes, that can paralyze a person. It's like that old adage of how you eat an elephant. One bite at a time...

Get that first one finished and start sending it out while you then turn your attention to a second. I have a feeling you won't get that many rejections.

Sally Clements said...

Hi Les. Your question made me look through my 'sent out' book to see how many I sent it to. Eighteen in total. Of those, I had the 2 I mentioned, and two other rejections that were sort of good. One said they considered it for one of their imprints, but felt it didn't quite fit and said they'd be happy to look at something else, and the other (Penguin) said they liked it, but didn't think it fitted. Hmm. So, 2 requests for fulls out of 18, and 4 good rejections too. Now, fortified by your 87 goes, I'm going to get out the writers and artists yearbook, and send out another batch. Thanks, Les!
Catch Me A Catch is out on 28 July, and here's the link...
http://www.thewildrosepress.com/catch-me-a-catch-p-4147.html?zenid=9c2b1b7fbf782059c370376117fe3e58

Piedmont Writer said...

Les, please tell "Ruth" I'm sitting on the side of 74 rejections with my first novel which has garnered partials but no fulls and I am insanely jealous of her. The agents tell me it is the market now, not my writing so I take it with a grain of salt. I shall perservere.

I also am thrilled to find out you are an alum of Vermont College. I graduated from there in '96! What a small world. I'm sure you were there when all the greats taught. I wish I could have. However I did have Tom Absher and Dick Hathaway so I don't feel too deprived.

Great post. And by the way, two partials, snail mail, cross country. at 50 pages both ways today was $8.60

Les Edgerton said...

Piedmont Writer--you're Anne Hathaway! (Of course you knew that... but I didn't!). I remember you from VC. I graduated in 97, just behind you. My advisors were Phyllis Barber, Diane Lefer (twice), and Francois Camoin, and my workshop leaders included Doug Glover, Sharon Sheehe Starke, Syd Lea, Abby Frucht, Carol Anshaw, and Sena Naslund.

Great people!

My hangout was Charlie O's. The yuppies went to that upstairs bar down the street--Julios?

Nice to run into a fellow grad!

Brad Green said...

Hello. I've just discovered your blog and thought I'd let you know that this post was quite informative. I've just started looking for an agent for my novel, so it's all new to me. I've grabbed your feed and will be reading much more.

Also: try some Rum. Yes, it should be capitalized. Cruzan Dark is like a woman's breath.

Les Edgerton said...

Hey Brad--welcome! Used to drink rum a lot. I was stationed about forty miles from Cuba in 1962 on a little island named San Salvador. We were the base that tracked Russian submarines and right in the middle of the Cuban Crisis. Fun times!

The best rums are Cuban, imo. And, the best of all was Methusalum (sp?). Can't get it because of the embargo, but once you drink it all other rums taste like gasolene. Went from San Salvador to Bermuda where I spent two years in the Navy and then, when I was mustered out, went back and lived as a civilian and worked as a bouncer and bartender at a blood 'n bucket place called Danny's Hideaway. (Not on the tourist map...) One great thing in Bermuda was we could get 20-year-old Scotch which wasn't available in the States. Loved Bell's 20...

Brad Green said...

Is The Death of Tarpons and Monday's Meal your only fictional work? It's interesting to see how diversified you are in what you write.

Les Edgerton said...

Brad--as of now. I sold a novel in auction to Random House in 97 which became a horror show. Chose them over St. Martin's (and SM offered more) and it was a true horror show. Have a new novel coming out this fall and possibly two more. Will keep folks posted.

Sally Clements said...

Hi Les, well I went back to the NY agent, who recently blogged that they had 25,000 queries last year (incl mine!) and took on 6. And they said I'm still under consideration... after 8 months! Fingers crossed...

Les Edgerton said...

Sally... WOW! That's huge! What's your novel about? Asking in case they don't work out as if it's the right kind of thing I may be able to recommend someone for you.

If it's something you don't want to put out in public, just email me at butchedgerton@comcast.net

Carson Flanders said...

Les,
The most important info I took from this blog: Successful writers have awesome spouses. My husband has watched precious dollars being mailed out-less now with email, but fewer dollars to go around-with nary a complaint.
After a bunch of rejections (I don't count) and a huge rewrite I got a request for a full on my first re-query. It's been nine weeks, so my hopes wane from time to time.
I don't have 10-20 out, so that is my goal for this weekend.
Thanks for all the info and encouragement.
Carson Flanders